Friday, May 31, 2013

Morphing Words

How well can your students morph words from one part of speech to another?  Give them a word and ask them to identify its part of speech.  Then have them transform it into other parts of speech.

Let's take cheer, for example.  What part of speech is it?  It can be a noun or a verb.

Now ask your student to make it into an adjective: cheerful.

How about a participle: cheering.

An adverb?  cheerily.

Do this for any words that pop into your mind. Here are some that popped into mine.

Retire (v)   
noun: retirement  
adjective: retired

Exhaustion (n)   
verb: exhaust  
adjective: exhausting

Celebrate (v)    
noun: celebration
adjective: celebrative, celebratory

Excite (v)  
noun: excitement   
adjective: excited, excitable

Intense (adj)   
adverb: intensely
noun: intenseness

Another idea is to let your students think of the words, morphing them in as many ways as possible.  Then ask them to check a source, such as www. to see what others there may be. 

In addition to becoming more savvy with parts of speech, they will see the versatility of words and build their reservoir of vocabulary!

Thursday, May 30, 2013


I remember being introduced to Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" in junior high. With its nonsensical vocabulary that still manages to tell a story, it is sort of hard to forget.  Are your students familiar with it?

In addition to reading this poem aloud, enjoying it for its genius, use it to generate discussion about parts of speech.  What do you think about the words in the first stanza?  Brillig?  Slithy toves? Gyre and gimble?  Are there clues to show us the function of these and the other words in the poem? Look for them with your students and figure out as many as you can.
Lewis Carroll
(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Using Poetry to Teach Parts of Speech

Learn or review parts of speech by writing structured poetry.

Parts of Speech Poem 1
The Structure

Line 1 – one article (a, and, the) + one noun
Line 2 – one adjective + one conjunction + one adjective
Line 3 – one verb + one conjunction + one verb
Line 4 – one adverb
Line 5 – one noun that relates to the noun in the first line
An Example

An athlete *
Strong and sweaty
Pivots and shoots

* This would be an excellent opportunity to talk about when to use "a" and when to use "an"  before a noun.
The Structure

Line 1: NOUN – whatever the poem is going to be about

Line 2: Three ADJECTIVES separated with commas that describe line 1.

Line 3: (3x) VERB ending in “–ing” and ADVERB describing what line 1 does, separated with commas.

Example: running quickly, jumping fluidly, racing urgently

Line 4: Three PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES, separated with commas

Line 5: INTERJECTION written with either an (!) or nothing if not as strong

Line 6: Free line with at least one PRONOUN in it

Line 7: Free line with at least one CONJUNCTION in it

Line 8: NOUN – write a synonym (word that means the same thing) for the noun in line 1.
An Example

Omnipotent, wise, gracious
Reigning gloriously, directing specifically, loving faithfully
Over all the earth,  before there was time,  at my right hand
My Creator and Sustainer
The One who made Heaven and Earth

If your student wants to write a synonym diamante, the nouns at the beginning and end of the poem should be synonyms.
The Synonym Structure

Adjective, Adjective
Verb, Verb, Verb
Noun, Noun, Noun, Noun
Verb, Verb, Verb
Adjective, Adjective

An Example

caring, kind
nursing , assisting, guiding
teacher, adviser, counselor, caregiver,
leading, molding, supervising
tender, understanding

If your student wants to write an antonym poem, the nouns at the beginning and end of the poem should be opposites, all the words in regular font referring to the first noun, all of the words in italics referring to the second noun. (Of course, the difference in font is only for clarity; the final poem will not have italics.)

The Antonym Structure

Adjective, Adjective
Verb, Verb, Verb
Noun, Noun, Noun, Noun
Verb, Verb, Verb
Adjective, Adjective

An Example

symmetrical, conventional
shaping, measuring, balancing
boxes, rooms, clocks, halos
encircling, circumnavigating, enclosing
round, continuous
For a change of pace, you may want to let your student use this online tool for writing the poem.


The Structure

a one-word title (a noun)
two adjectives
three -ing participles
a phrase
a synonym for your title (another noun)


An Example

cold, creamy
eating, giggling, licking
cone with three scoops
ice cream

A graphic organizer and sample poems, including the one above, can be found here.

I'd love to see your students' poems in the comments!

Observing and Narrating a Process

When my oldest daughter was little, her aunt gave her a butterfly garden.  What a delight for her (and me) to watch the process of metamorphosis! Of course, even though she was five, I couldn't let the writing opportunity pass us by!  I asked her to keep a record of her observations which then went into a book she illustrated. This assignment worked so well that I did it with my other daughters when they were old enough to make their own books.

Who: preschool and elementary-aged children

What: To connect writing with science, students watch the process of metamorphosis, keeping a record of their observations and making a  simple book.
Excerpts from Janessa's dictated text:

April 13
When we came home from church, my mom noticed that there were two cocoons on the lid, and me and my sisters were really excited because we knew they would be coming out soon.

April 15
Today there was a problem. One caterpillar on the bottom was very confused about where to make his cocoon. But there was another problem.  It wasn't that he was on the bottom; it was that his cocoon didn't have the color it should. It was green.

April 22
Today one of my butterflies has a broken wing. My mom, my sisters, and I were all sorry for my little butterfly. I was about to cry when my mom noticed it because I didn't want my little tiny butterfly to be dead.

Today one of the cocoons dropped from the lid and went under the grass, so my mom, my sisters, and I couldn't see him. And he changed under the grass so we wouldn't see him so he would have privacy.
The entries were good practice with non-fiction writing, but with interest in the butterflies high, I also asked them to write a fiction piece, a short story about a caterpillar-turned-butterfly.

Michaiah's story:

Once there was a caterpillar named Katie. One day she decided to make a cocoon and she took a hammer and nails and began hammering the nails around herself.  Then she stayed there for sixteen days and on the seventeenth day she decided to try to get out of the cocoon.  Then she nibbled and nibbled but she could not get out.  So she hollered for help but no one came so she kept hollering for help but still no one heard her.  Finally, she gave up and wiggled so much that the cocoon fell and broke a hole in it.  Then she got out and was a beautiful butterfly.   The End.
We couldn't miss out on good published books that explain and illustrate metamorphosis. Here are some titles:

From Caterpillar to Butterfly by Deborah Heiligman
Butterflies and Caterpillars by Barrie Watts
The Caterpillar and the Polliwog by Jack Kent
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

PictureA Related Idea
My husband said he knew we were homeschoolers when we incubated chicks in the dining room of our townhouse.  That incredible process was also recounted in a small book, this time with transitional words (i.e. then, next, now) instead of dates.

A Related Story
We also watched tadpoles become frogs. Seemingly not keen on his home, one jumped out and landed behind the faucet of our kitchen sink, his transformation halted. (Uh, he died.)  Not finding a single man in the neighborhood to remove him, I scraped and flipped him to the first place I could think of: the disposal.  I dropped some other scraps down there and flicked the switch, trying hard not to think about what was happening. We didn't have any related writing projects! : )

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Power Proofreading

If you want your students to act as editors, send them to Power Proofreading. At this site, you can choose the grade level (2-8) and the skill you want your student to review.  For instance, if you choose grade 4 and "Who's That Character," your student will correct past tense verbs by clicking on each error and fixing it in the box.  Some selections also include "mixed practice."

Note: The key word is "review." Your student should already be comfortable with the skills before editing the selections. Otherwise, it will be little more than a guessing game.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Punctuation Takes a Vacation?

What would you do if punctuation marks the comma period question mark quotation mark and others left for a  vacation Or if, they! were running? wild"

Punctuation marks may seem random and headache-producing, but they are important in helping writers and readers communicate with each other. If they were absent or haphazard, reading would become a horrible chore.  I think my first "sentence" proves that, but if you--or your students--need a little more convincing, read Robin Pulver's fun book Punctuation Takes a Vacation and see both extremes.

Possible activities for students to do with this book:
  • Read it!  (That's a good start.)
  • After the punctuation marks are left in disbelief, they respond. Read their comments and observe the role each mark plays in the sentences.  What other roles do these marks have?
  • Read aloud the letter in the blue box. Punctuate it.  Read it aloud again. How do the two readings compare?
  • Look at the postcards the punctuation marks send from Take-a-Break Lake. Who wrote each of them?
  • Read the letter from Mr. Wright's class to Punctuation. Do the poor class a favor and put the punctuation marks where they belong.
  • Choose several punctuation marks and write postcards from each of them.
  • Write a brief piece three times, one with no punctuation, one with misplaced punctuation, and one with correct punctuation. (Better yet, type it. It will be easier to copy, paste, and manipulate.)

Two excerpts from Punctuation Takes a Vacation

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End with a Noun?

When I read Ruth Culham's 6 + 1 Traits of Writing this past weekend, I noticed something new. She claims that, although it's okay to end sentences with other parts of speech, ending them with a noun makes them more powerful (201). She illustrates her premise by revising a proverb:
A rolling stone gathers no moss. (noun)
If a stone rolls, hardly any moss will be gathered. (verb)
If you are concerned about moss gathering on a stone, roll it. (pronoun)
When trying to rid yourself of moss, roll the stone quickly. (adverb)
If you roll the stone, the moss will become smooth. (adjective)
Hmmm, interesting.  I'll try it here, ending my sentences with a noun to see if they are more powerful.

Here I go.

When I read Ruth Culham's 6 + 1 Traits of Writing this past weekend, I noticed a new tip. She claims it is more powerful to end a sentence with a noun rather than another part of speech. She illustrates her premise by revising a proverb.
A rolling stone gathers no moss. (noun)
If a stone rolls, hardly any moss will be gathered. (verb)
If you are concerned about moss gathering on a stone, roll it. (pronoun)
When trying to rid yourself of moss, roll the stone quickly. (adverb)
If you roll the stone, the moss will become smooth. (adjective)
My experiment here is too short to confirm or deny her suggestion, but one thing I can say: this would be an interesting way to get a student to rethink/restructure (i.e. revise) her sentences. Ask her to end several sentences in a paragraph with nouns and see how it changes her paragraph.

Have you seen this advice before?  Do you think about it when you write?  What have you discovered?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bad Parenting

Picture Who: Students of any age

What: Write a story based on a series of pictures.

I love using these “Bad Parenting” pictures as a writing prompt. The stories students write are generally creative and fun.

PREWRITING: Invite your students to study the pictures, asking a list of W and H questions—who, what, when, where, why, how—and answering with as much detail as possible, orally or on paper.

Note: The teacher need not be the one to think of and ask the questions. Allowing students to brainstorm their own questions is a valuable learning tool as well.

Here are some of my questions.

What are the ducks’ names?
How many ducklings are there in the first frame? The second? The last?
If the ducks were personified, what would they be saying?
Where are they coming from?
Where are they going?
What is happening outside the borders of each picture?
What is the weather like?
When Mama Duck looks in the grate, what does she see?
What happened before the first picture?
What happened after the last picture?
What is Mama Duck thinking?

Once students have studied the pictures and answered their questions, they may be ready to write. Let them.  Others may need additional props.  If so, you may want to offer graphic organizers to help them see their story develop.  Maybe a beginning/middle/end graphic organizer would be useful.  This story map or this story map may also be just what they need.

DRAFTING: Once students are ready, release them to capture these pictures in words as creatively and imaginatively as possible. Editing comes later, so they need not be hindered by conventions now.

REVISING: When the first draft is finished, commend your students but also remind them that there is more work to do. There are many ways to approach the revision part of the writing process and, with time, I hope to include many ideas on this site. For now, let's look at some of Ruth Culham's writing traits: ideas, organization, voice, sentence fluency, and word choice.  Choose one (or as many as your students can handle) to address. You will find an excellent starting point with these revision sticky notes here.  (Included is one for  "Conventions," which you can use for EDITING.)

PUBLISHING:  The process is complete; now it's time to celebrate the product.  Add it to a collection of other pieces and make a coil bound book. Make a spiffy copy, including the pictures, and share it with Grandma.  Consider including it in the comments for others to read!

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Author Extraordinaire

Seventeen months ago, my oldest daughter had surgery to repair subluxated  tendons in her right ankle. Yesterday morning she had surgery to repair subluxated tendons in her right ankle. It's really not an activity she put on her bucket list twice, but the first doctor botched surgery, leaving her with more pain and less mobility.

Wouldn't it be nice to rewind time, in this case returning to December 2011 and choosing a different path, a different doctor, a different outcome?   When I survey the situation from my little plastic throne, there's no doubt I would.  In a heartbeat, I would sanitize her story, removing any and all problems. But with the next heartbeat, I realize that I would be removing those parts of her story that give it suspense and color, those parts that require her to live beyond herself, by faith in her God who is for her--and faithful. By messing with her story, I would take away months of waiting upon Him, trusting Him when the answers weren't obvious.

When I'm thinking correctly, I slip from my flimsy throne to my knees, bowing before the One who is on His eternal, immovable throne, the Author of every word of her story. He has crafted its beginning, middle, and end, the timing of every plot twist, and the resolution to each cliffhanger.

I am thankful He keeps the pen out of my hands and writes the story He wants for her. He invites me to sit back to read and enjoy it, learning from chapter to chapter to trust Him who writes the very best stories.   

I pray that the next chapter includes running and dancing on a healthy ankle. I'll see what happens when I turn the page.    

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Invitation to Edit #1

To help students become better editors, consider using Jeff Anderson's idea--Invitation to Edit--from Everyday Editing.

Begin by looking at the first sentence, the mentor text, with your student.  What does she notice about it?  She can comment on anything--content, diction, syntax, punctuation, anything.

Once she has studied it and made her observations, cover it and show her the subsequent sentences, one by one, allowing her to point out what is different (i.e. incorrect) about each one.

 A Sample Set

"Because he was so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the house."

Stuart Little by E.B. White, 47

Because he was so small Stuart was often hard to find around the house.

Because he was so small, stuart was often hard to find around the house.

Because he was so small, Stuart was often hard too find around the house.

Because he were so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the house.

because he was so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the house.

To make your own "Invitation," find or write a sentence you want your student to study. Copy and paste it several times, making a change to each one (i.e. delete a comma, misspell a word, insert a homophone, etc.). 

Once your student is comfortable with the process, have her make her own "Invitation" for you or a sibling to edit.  Remind her to put only one error in each sentence, so the activity doesn't become a massive error hunt.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Have you ever thought of the parts of speech with personalities?  How would you characterize a noun? an adjective? a verb?  M. L. Nesbitt personifies the parts of speech in her allegory Grammar-Land: Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroom-shire "They are funny fellows, these nine Parts-of-Speech. You will find out by-and-by which you like best amongst them all.  There is rich Mr. Noun, and his useful friend Pronoun; little ragged Article, and talkative Adjective; busy Dr. Verb, and Adverb; perky Preposition, convenient Conjunction, and that tiresome Interjection, the oddest of them all" (3).

These "funny fellows" are in a tizzy about which words belong to whom, so they must appear in court to present their case before Serjeant Parsing, Dr. Syntax, and Judge Grammar.

The author includes exercises at the end of each chapter. If you would like them in  worksheet/handout form to accompany your study of this book, you can find them here.

This text is also available as a free e-book here.

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Simple and Complex Writing


Who: For students in grades 5-8

What: Using two selections about the same situation--one simple and one more complex--students first notice the differences between them, then write simple and complex pieces of their own.

How: Begin by inviting students to read the excerpts from each of the mentor texts below, writing their observations and discussing them.  What are their impressions about each excerpt?  Which one do they like better?

Together, analyze the texts for sentence length, sentence openers, kinds of punctuation, ability to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, point of view, etc.  Begin to use showing vs. telling terminology.

If you can find the two books in a local library, check them out.  Wait to show them until the discussion is complete, so they are not biased by the books themselves. I think they will be amused to see that the first selection comes from an easy reader.

When students understand how the two texts differ, give them one of two tasks.

        Option #1:  Rewrite the two selections, developing the simple one  and simplifying the complex one.

        Option #2:  Write two similar scenes, one that simply tells about the scene with short sentences and sparse details, the other that shows the scene with varied sentences and rich details.

When students have completed their drafts, ask them to share highlights from their simple and complex pieces.  Which one do they prefer?  Which one was easier to write? Draw boxes around each sentence. How do  the widths of the boxes compare from one piece to the other?  Highlight the sentence openers.  Is there variety? What is their strongest detail?

Allow time to revise and edit the pieces before putting them away.

Selection #1

From I Am Rosa Parks by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins

 “One day I was riding on a bus.  I was sitting in one of the seats in the back section for black people.  The bus started to get crowded.  The front seats filled up with white people.  One white man was standing up.  The bus driver looked back at us black people sitting down.  The driver said, ‘Let me have those seats.’ He wanted us to get up and give our seats to white people.  But I was tired of doing that.  I stayed in my seat.  This bus driver said to me, ‘I’m going to have you arrested.’ ‘You may do that,’ I said.  And I stayed in my seat.  Two policemen came.  One asked me, ‘Why didn’t you stand up?’ I asked him, ‘Why do you push us black people around?”

Selection #2

From Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

 “Rosa settled her sewing bag and her purse near her knees, trying not to crowd Jimmy’s father.  Men take up more space, she was thinking as she tried to squish her packages closer.  The bus made several more stops, and the two seats opposite her were filled by blacks.  She sat on her side of the aisle daydreaming about her good day and planning her special meal for her husband.

 ‘I said give me those seats!’ the bus driver bellowed.  Mrs. Parks looked up in surprise.  The two men on the opposite side of the aisle were rising to move into the crowded black section.  Jimmy’s father muttered, more to himself than anyone else, ‘I don’t feel like trouble today.  I’m gonna move.’

 Mrs. Parks stood to let him out, looked at James Blake the bus driver, and then sat back down.

 ‘You better make it easy on yourself!” Blake yelled.

 ‘Why do you pick on us?’ Mrs. Parks asked with that quiet strength of hers.

 ‘I’m going to call the police!” Blake threatened.

 ‘Do what you must,’ Mrs. Parks quietly replied.  She was not frightened.  She was not going to give in to that which was wrong.”

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free clip art  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ruth Heller Books

 Allow your children to absorb the parts of speech with Ruth Heller's help.  In her World of Language series, she highlights a different part of speech in each book, explaining its function and using many examples to show it in use.

Here's how she begins Kites Sail High: "A VERB is really the most superb of any word you've ever heard.... Verbs tell you something's being done. Roses BLOOM and people RUN."

In this simple rhyming picture book, Heller introduces readers to complex concepts. Among them are linking verbs, helping verbs, tenses, irregular verbs, and passive and active voices.

Other books in the series cover nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, collective nouns, interjections and conjunctions, and prepositions.

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Pen Pal Project

Our kids know how to e-mail, chat, and text.  Do they know how to write a personal letter? Last year, I gave my eighth graders regular opportunities to write letters  by pairing them with senior citizens they had never met. Their assignment was to write monthly to their new friend, asking questions, answering questions, and developing a relationship. At the end of the year, when all those goals were accomplished, they used the research they gleaned from the letters and wrote a biography of their pen pal. They then adapted their paper into a speech, which they presented to the pen pals at their first face-to-face meeting.

Of all the assignments and projects they completed during the year, this was by far the most successful, establishing enduring relationships and giving students a real reason for writing and public speaking.

Micah and Arlene
Rosie and Rosie (and Rosie's mom)
Leah and Dot
Ethel and Lianna (and Lianna's mom)
Sara and Jonas
David and Alyssa--This was the only sad part of the project. 
Alyssa's pen pal was David's wife Joyce until she suddenly passed away.

Is Boring Good?

Over the weekend, I found 6 + 1 Traits of Writing by Ruth Culham at the thrift shop.  For $2.50, I couldn't let it stay on the shelf.  This paragraph from Culham rang true for me.

When I was in school, the papers that got the highest grades held the reader at a safe arm's length.  They tended to pontificate.  I remember being told never to express  a personal opinion unless asked. And never use 'I,' which was always tough to figure out: Who else did the reader think was writing the piece if not 'I,' after all?  My assigned readings, however, were passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating. But when it came to my own writing, on went the straitjacket, and I wound up pumping out stuff that was stilted, cold, and distant.  It was boring--but it always got high marks.  Unfortunately, this tradition is still alive in many of the classrooms I visit. And more than likely, something that's boring to read was boring to write.  It will be nearly impossible to get students engaged in writing if all the excitement's been drained out of it (103).

Why is it that students are so often shoehorned into five-paragraph, formal, voiceless writing?

It's easy to teach a formula.  It's easy to grade a formula. It's easy to keep control of the process when you have a classroom of kids.

The question: why?

The answer: easy.

The result: boring!

It happened to me as a student. The result was that I thought I had to use big words and sound like something I wasn't. Stilted, cold, and distant didn't describe me as a person, but they certainly described my writing. Sadly, the habit went deep; I still fight to get out of the ditch I thought was mine.

I want to give my students something far better. I want them to be free to experiment, to create, to be themselves. I don't want to jam them into a specific style, draining the excitement out of writing; I want them to discover that they have something to say, and they can say it well with their own voice. They can be the ones writing passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating pieces.

What can we do to make writing more exciting for our students?
  • Let them choose their own topics.
  • Don't lock them into one format (i.e. the five-paragraph essay). Allow them to experiment with different genres.
  • Give them a reason for writing that goes beyond the teacher and a grade, offering assignments and projects that captivate their attention.
  • Integrate writing into everything they do rather than relegating it to worksheets.
  • Remember that writing is a process. Editing is one part of the process; it's not the focus. It's important for published pieces to be correctly spelled, capitalized, and punctuated, but if mechanics are the primary focus during the process, a student can end up with a correct, but lifeless, paper. (That described my writing, too.)
  • Look at writing you enjoy. Do any of the pieces follow the five-paragraph format?  Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?  Does every sentence have a subject and a verb? Likely not. Invite your students to look at writing they enjoy, observing it closely and imitating it.

It is true that you invite risk when you walk away from formulaic writing assignments, but you also welcome creativity, thinking, and passion. Instead of reading a predictable piece that you will soon forget, you will likely read one that comes from the heart, leaving a mark on yours.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

Avoiding Plagiarism

How do you teach your students about plagiarism and how to avoid it?

A friend sent me this article written by Mrs. Richman, a leader in homeschooling and a current teacher.

After teaching in both a private Christian school and a co-op myself, I can tell you that plagiarism cannot be overlooked.  It is a serious problem which deserves its time in the homeschool setting. We need to start by explaining to our kids what it is; Mrs. Richman does a fabulous job of showing it with excellent (and unfortunate) examples. Perhaps the discussion can begin by reading the article together. Then we need to teach strong research skills or put our kids in settings where they will learn them.

Should we wait until high school to introduce the word?  Absolutely not. As soon as students are drawing ideas from other sources, they need to know it's not okay to borrow (i.e. steal) someone else's words. Their note-taking and citations may not be as sophisticated as an older kid's, but if they learn young, they'll avoid a whole lot of trouble later. More importantly, they'll have work that is truly their own.

See Writing Research Reports for additional help.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Encourage (require) your children to edit their own writing. Teach them early that their first attempt is not their final product. This is where I do the bulk of grammar teaching. It's not my hacking the paper with a red pen and making the student feel like a complete grammatical loser. Rather, it's sitting with the child, who doesn't believe in periods or apostrophes, and having him find where he can insert a few. Or it's showing the importance of signaling dialogue with quotation marks or making another paragraph each time a new person speaks. This works well because the student is seeing the immediate connection between grammatical rules and his own work.

Reusing Book Jackets


You know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but these covers do not contain what you may suppose. You likely assume that the authors of these books are Doreen Cronin, Janice M. Del Negro, and Audrey Wood. If so, you are wrong. In fact, the authors are my daughters.

The local library had a crate of extra book jackets to give away, so I took a pile of them.  The girls each chose their favorite one; then, using clues from the title and cover illustration, they wrote their own stories.

To make these books a little sturdier, we glued pieces of cardstock inside the front and back covers; we also printed their stories on cardstock.  To hold it all together, we anchored the pages by stapling along the left side.

After they were finished, we found the original stories to read and compare.

This simple idea inspires creativity while giving kids a starting point, taking away the dread of filling a blank piece of paper, and leaving them with real writing they will be eager to share.

Not into fiction?  Find a jacket for a non-fiction book.  I tutored a boy who would rather trap and skin mice than read or write. He chose the Amazing Sharks! book cover, researched his favorite sharks, wrote a paragraph about each one, and drew simple illustrations to go with his text. It still wasn't as riveting as playing with mice, but at least he could accomplish his mom's goals while studying nature, his other passion.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alphabet Stories

I saw this idea when I was at a school, the finished stories hanging on the bulletin board in the hallway. So simple and creative!

Who: Appropriate for any age but particularly for students who need a little structure for security

What:  The student uses each letter of the alphabet to tell a story. Let me show you; it will be easier. The following example is the beginning of my youngest daughter's retelling of "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf." She created this when she was five.

A long time ago there lived three little pigs and their

B eautiful mother named

C atherine.The three little pigs were named

D avid, Danny, and Doug. While they were

E ating bacon and eggs and

F ried potatoes, their mommy said, "You need to

G o out in the world and build a

H ouse for all of you." So the three little pigs set off.  While they were walking, they saw a penguin with a wheelbarrow full of bricks. "Please, may we have some bricks to build a house with?" "Certainly," said the penguin.

I t was hard work building the house, and they made a ping-pong table for all of them to play with.

Sorry to leave you in suspense, but you get the idea. : )

What happened when she got to X?  She used the word eXcitedly to begin her sentence. Problem solved!

Rebekah's story was eventually typed, illustrated, and preserved in a white hardbound book. Now it's on the shelf, a reminder of her personality and skills at age five and a benchmark of how far she has come!

Other Related Ideas
  • One year I wrote our family Christmas letter with this format.
  • With this structure, your student could retell a historical event or highlight a person she is studying.
free clip art  

Mentor Texts: What Are They?

What is a mentor text?

Jeff Anderson offers a succinct definition: "A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of writer's craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to 'show don't tell'" (Mechanically Inclined 16).

If you choose to teach writing or grammar apart from workbooks, it is helpful to have a collection of texts to use as models.  Once kids have studied the examples, they can imitate the author, using the same techniques, developing their awareness of  options beyond what they currently use.

I have begun a collection here. The categories below and the excerpts within them are only a beginning. If you (or your students) want to help me, send me your selection, including the author, title, page number, and the category it best illustrates.

Adjectives out of Order
Adverb Clauses (AAAWWUBBIS)
Commas in a Series
Compound Sentences
Participial Phrases
Prepositional Openers
Two-Word Sentences

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

Mad Libs

Teach the parts of speech by having your children do mad libs. Remember them? You fill in the blanks of a short story with the appropriate parts of speech. When the completed story is read, it is often very silly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


An example of figurative language, similes are a way to compare two unlike things, using like or as.
"He just stood there, and Winn-Dixie came barreling right toward him like he was a bowling ball and the preacher was the only pin left standing, and wham, they both fell to the ground (Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie, 74).

“…and he’s dead. Dead as a squashed June bug…” (Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game, 14).

“I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, 6).

“Reading provides you with words, like the colors of God’s rainbow, to paint your ideas, to give beauty and variety to your thought” (Avi, Murder at Midnight, 32).

“Dressed entirely in black, Count Scarazoni had a thin, pinched face with dark eyebrows that swept over his angry eyes like a bar of iron” (Avi, Murder at Midnight, 70).

“His house is as void of the religion of Christ as the white of an egg is of flavor” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 79).

“Like a chameleon, he changes his color every time he changes his environment” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, 79).

“The name comes out flat, bitter as a bad pecan” (Kathryn Stockett, The Help, 122).

“Alton was a long, skinny, baby with hair fine as silk corn…” (Kathryn Stockett, The Help, 149).

"His whiskers became as tight as bowstrings" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 32).
"He started gobbling fried chicken so fast he choked on a bone and died right there on the spot. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a bucket lid" (Paul Brett Johnson, Old Dry Frye). 
"At parties, when all six-foot-five of him thundered into the room, attention shifted to him like sunflowers turning to the sun" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 13).
"I used to bury cotton wisps in my ears, pull the blanket over my head, and still the sounds of Baba's snoring--so much like a growling truck engine--penetrated the walls" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 13).
"His hair, short and brown, stood on his scalp like needles in a pincushion" (Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, 183).  

For more mentor texts, go here.

Prepositional Openers

For variety, sentences can begin with prepositional phrases. Find a list of prepositions here Notice the comma after the phrase.

"On her first day, Chrysanthemum wore her sunniest dress and her brightest smile" (Kevin Henkes, Chrysanthemum).

"For one second, before the metal cooled, the inside of his right hand, from wrist to fingertips, was coated with solid silver" (Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain, 33).

"In the hard-packed dirt of the driveway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone home to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribbling, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops" (E. B. White, Charlotte's Web, 123).

For more mentor texts, go here.  


Harry Noden explains an appositive as "a noun that adds a second image to a preceding noun"  (Image Grammar 8).

Notes about Appositives:

  • Appositives interrupt a sentence.
  • They are set apart with punctuation, generally commas.
"Nana-Fall-River, his Italian grandmother, put one in a special frame on the table next to the photographer of Aunt Clo in her wedding dress" (Tomie dePaola, The Art Lesson).

"Tom and Nana, Tommy's Irish grandfather and grandmother, had his pictures in their grocery story" (Tomie dePaola, The Art Lesson).

"Catherine the Great, my Russian grandma, is already awake" (Cari Best, Three Cheers for Catherine the Great).
"Avon, a rather small snail, read a book every day" (Avi, The End of the Beginning).

"Keith, the boy in rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered room 215 of the Mountain View Inn" (Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle).

"My time with Albert Einstein, my grandfather, passed all too quickly" (Marfe Ferguson Delano, Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein).

"Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 25).

"The sound was King Phillip playing his guitar and singing to his daughter, the Princess Pea, every night before she fell asleep" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 27). 

For more mentor texts, go here.

Participial Phrases

At, you will find this description of participial (or participle) phrases: "Participle phrases always function as adjectives, adding description to the sentence." These phrases can add depth and maturity to students' writing, helping them to avoid choppy prose.

Notes about Participial Phrases:

  • Participial phrases can be found anywhere in the sentence: beginning, middle, or end.
  • It's very easy to misplace these modifiers, especially when they begin a sentence.  I once heard Andrew Pudewa say at a workshop, "The thing after the ing needs to be the thing doing the inging."  For example, in the first sentence below, he comes immediately after frowning. He is the one frowning. This is correct. In the second sentence, they is the first word after the participial phrase. Since they are the ones turning the corner, this is also correct.
  • Participial phrases are typically accompanied by a comma if they appear in the beginning or end of the sentence.  If they are in the middle, they are surrounded by commas.
  • Present tense participles end in -ing, past tense in -ed. There are many irregular ones as well.
  • Participial phrases can be strung one after another.

At the beginning:
"Frowning, he finally came out with a single marble" (Jeff Brumbeau, The Quiltmaker's Gift).

"Turning a corner suddenly, they came upon two vans, a tent, and a company of gypsies encamped by the side of the road" (E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, 70).

"Pushing the covers back, Stuart climbed out of bed" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 54).

"Taking his bow and arrow and his flashlight, he tiptoed out into the hall" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 54).

Being careful not to make a sound, he stole across to the lamp by the bookshelf, shinnied up the cord, and climbed out onto the shelf" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 54).

In the middle:
"While he was there, waiting for the dog to go away, a garbage truck from the Department of Sanitation drove up to the curb and two men picked up the can" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 58).

"And then, tracing each word with his paw, he read the story of a beautiful princess and the brave knight who serves and honors her" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 24).
"A young physicist named Herb Anderson walked in, yawning, and helped do a few last-minute checks" (Steve Sheinkin, Bomb, 71.) 

At the end:
"Many people climbed her mountain, pockets bursting with gold, hoping to buy one of the wonderful quilts" (Jeff Brumbeau, The Quiltmaker's Gift).

"Paralyzed, my face on fire, I could only look at her, shocked at what I had done (Katherine Hannigan, Ida B, 212).

"She was standing there, sucking on the knuckle of her third finger, staring in the window of Gertrude's Pets" (Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn Dixie, 57).

"'Once upon a time,' he said aloud, relishing the sound" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 24).

"'Move side to side,' instructed Furlough, scrabbling across the waxed castle floor" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 20).
"I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek" ((Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 1).
"The streets filled with kite fighters, jerking and tugging on their lines, squinting up to the sky, trying to gain position to cut the opponent's line (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 51). 
 "Still in pajamas, Harry Gold raced around his cluttered bedroom, pulling out desk drawers, tossing boxes out of the closet, and yanking books from the shelves" (Steven Sheinkin, Bomb, 1).
For more mentor texts, go here.

Adverb Clauses

Jeff Anderson helps students remember adverb clauses by teaching them the "AAAWWUBBIS whoop" (Mechanically Inclined 38). These words--after, although, as, while, when, until, before, because, if, since--introduce adverb clauses. 

Notes about adverb clauses:

  • They can occur anywhere in the sentence: beginning, middle, or end.
  • Where there is an adverb clause, there is a comma nearby.
  • They depend on complete sentences. If you write an adverb clause without one, you will end up with a fragment.

If You Give... books by Laura Numeroff work well to teach AAAWWUBBIS clauses.  Some of the titles in the series: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, If You Give a Dog a Donut, If You Take a Mouse to the Movies.

"When the members of this clever crew are not on duty, I find them singing and dancing or amusing each other with tales of past adventure" (Chris Van Allsburg, The Wretched Stone).

"Because he was so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the house" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 47).

"After everything had been checked and the money had been paid, Stuart climbed in, started the engine, and drove out onto the highway" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 126).

"The Lamb, as Martha had said, was feeling the benefit of the country air, and he was as frisky as a sandhopper" (E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, 63).  Notice the compound sentence as well!

"While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 12).
For more mentor texts, go here.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. 

Commas in a Series

When you have a series of three or more words or phrases in a sentence, you need a comma before the last piece of the series (unless, of course, you're British; then you don't include a comma there).

Remember to admire parallel structure (aka parallelism) in sentences with series.

"She would then take a newly finished quilt from her bag, wrap it around their quivering shoulders, tuck them in tight, and tiptoe away" (Jeff Brumbeau, The Quiltmaker's Gift).

"Avery put on clean underwear, clean blue jeans, and a clean shirt" (E. B. White, Charlotte's Web, 119).

The Tale of Despereaux being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread (Kate DiCamillo)

"...Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea?" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 32).
"Matt also replaced worn-out light bulbs, renewed washers in leaky faucets, carried trays for people who telephoned room service to order food sent to their rooms, and sometimes prevented children from hitting one another with croquet mallets on the lawn behind the hotel" (Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 12). 
"Ralph was eager, excited, curious, and impatient all at once" (Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 20).  

The Enormous Carrot by Vladimir Vagin would work well to teach the serial comma. One character after another tries to pull the carrot out of the ground until you get a list like this: "So Daisy, Floyd, Mabel, Henry, Gloria, Buster, Claire, and Lester tried together...."

For more mentor texts, go here.

Compound Sentences

Compound sentences are two complete sentences joined with one of the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and separated by a comma.

"Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful" (E. B. White, Charlotte's Web, 11).

"You'll have to forgive me, for I had no idea that in all the world there was such a small sailor" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 29).

"But the truth was the drain had made him very slimy, and it was necessary for him to take a bath and sprinkle himself with a bit of his mother's violet water before he felt himself again" (E. B. White, Stuart Little, 6).

"His hair was mussed up, but his face was beaming with a big smile" (R. C. Sproul, The King Without a Shadow).

"His mom and dad were having a new house built, so Tommy drew pictures of what it would look like when it was finished" (Tomie dePaola, The Art Lesson).

"My quilts are for the poor and needy, and I can easily see that you are neither" (Jeff, Brumbeau, The Quiltmaker's Gift).
"Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes peering out upon the world" (Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 21). 

For more mentor texts, go here.  

Two-Word Sentences

Two-word sentences have all they need to qualify as complete sentences: a subject and a verb. Used appropriately, they can be powerful. When teaching students about complete sentences, the two-word sentence is a good starting point. 

"Chrysanthemum could scarcely believe her ears. She blushed. She beamed. She bloomed" (Kevin Henkes, Chrysanthemum).

"Chrysanthemum wilted" (Kevin Henkes, Chrysanthemum).

"Jesus wept" (John 11: 35).

"He shivered. He sneezed" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 24).

"He squinted" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 28).

"He trembled. He shook. He sneezed" (Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux, 28).
"Necks craned. Eyes crinkled" (Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 52). 

For more mentor texts, go here.  

Loving the Wayward Child

We are inundated with news everyday that is discouraging, even downright depressing. As Christians we believe in our heads that God is Sovereign, that "light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5), that the gospel of Jesus redeems and transforms lives. But when the news continues to bombard us, we sometimes forget. Testimonies of God at work encourage our hearts and fuel our hope. Here is #4 in the series.


After years of rebellion, God rescued Abraham Piper. In this piece, he shares his testimony, offering parents of wayward children suggestions for how to love them and give them Jesus. Enjoy this picture of redemption and the fruit of wisdom that comes from it!
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